Beethoven Ninth Symphony
MARKUS STENZ conductor
CAROLYN SAMPSON soprano
JENNIFER JOHNSON CANO mezzo-soprano
THOMAS COOLEY tenor
ERIC OWENS bass-baritone
MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair
Movement I from Te Deum, Op. 32
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, Choral
Allegro ma non troppo; un poco maestoso
Adagio molto e cantabile
Presto—Allegro assai—Allegro assai vivace
Movement I from Te Deum, Op. 32
Composed in 1920–1921. Premiered on February 28, 1922 at a Gürzenich Orchestra concert in Cologne, conducted by Hermann Abendroth.
During the 1920s, when the ferment of German artistic life was at a fever pitch, Walter Braunfels was regarded as one of the country’s foremost pianists and music administrators and a composer to rival Richard Strauss. Following his death in 1954, Braunfels fell into an almost complete obscurity that has only recently begun to lift.
Walter Braunfels was born in 1882 in Frankfurt am Main into a cultured family—his father was a jurist and his mother was a gifted pianist who was a great-niece of Louis Spohr and a friend of Liszt and Clara Schumann—and he took to music so handily that he was playing Bach Inventions and writing little pieces by age seven. Five years later he was accepted at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt to study theory under Iwan Knorr and piano with James Kwast, father-in-law of composer and conductor Hans Pfitzner, with whom Braunfels became close friends. Despite his musical proclivities, Braunfels entered the University of Munich in 1902 to study law and economics, but upon hearing performances of Wagner’s Ring and Tristan und Isolde and music by Strauss and Mahler soon after matriculating, he changed his major and his life’s intended work. By the end of the year, he had moved to Vienna to study theory with Karl Nawratil and piano with the celebrated Theodor Leschetizky, who also mentored such titans of the keyboard as Artur Schnabel, Ignaz Paderewski and Alexander Brailowsky.
Braunfels returned to Munich in September 1903 to study composition with Ludwig Thuille, director of the city’s Academy of Music, and to become an assistant to Felix Mottl at the National Theater; his successful debut as a pianist the following year began a career as a concert artist that lasted for the next three decades. The premiere of his opera Prinzessin Brambilla in Stuttgart in March 1909 established his reputation as a composer, and he continued to perform and compose until he was called up for military service in 1915. He resumed his career after being injured and discharged in 1917, and in 1920 premiered the Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz (“Fantastic Apparitions on a Theme of Hector Berlioz”) as well as the opera Die Vögel (“The Birds,” after Aristophanes), both of which received numerous subsequent performances under leading conductors.
In 1925 Braunfels was appointed co-director of the newly founded Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, which became known for the rigor and progressiveness of its curriculum. His tenure at the school ended abruptly in 1933 when the Nazis discovered that he was half-Jewish. He continued to compose and tried to arrange for performances of his works, but in 1937 he was forced into a virtual internal exile at Überlingen on Lake Constance. The following year he was banned by the Reichsmusikkammer (“Reich Music Association”) from all public music engagements, but escaped the tragic fate of most other German Jews. In 1945, Braunfels was restored to his position at the Cologne Hochschule and resumed concertizing, but he was never able to recapture his renown of the 1920s. He retired from the Hochschule in 1950 and two years later gave his farewell recital and was honored with a gala 70th birthday concert. He died in Cologne on March 19, 1954.
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Braunfels composed his Te Deum in 1920–1921 as, he said, “an expression of gratitude for my conversion” to Catholicism, “not as music for musicians, but as a religious avowal.” He had forsaken his paternal Judaism for Christianity after his personal faith had been shaken by his own injury and the trauma of World War I, and the Te Deum, in four large movements (only the first will be performed this evening) and almost an hour long, magnificently scored, passionately expressive, was intended as the public confession of his new creed.
Whatever place the work occupied in Braunfels’ personal life, however, it must also be seen within the context of the time and place of its creation—Germany in 1920, when the country was still reeling not just from its recent defeat on the battlefield but also suffering the humiliation and staggering penalties dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. Just a year earlier, Germany’s anxieties and uncertainties had begun to find their ultimately disastrous focus in Adolf Hitler, a veteran seething with anger over the outcome of the war, who had encountered a small, right-wing political group in Munich (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei—“German Workers’ Party”) whose extreme nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-capitalist views resonated powerfully with his own. He joined the DAP the following year, was appointed its propaganda officer, and changed its name to Deutsche Nationalsozialistische Arbeiterpartei, which quickly became abbreviated by opponents and supporters alike as “Nazis.” New recruits, desperate to regain the country’s prosperity and influence, flocked to the party, and after a decade of propaganda, increasing violence and malevolent insinuation into all phases of German life, by March 1933 the Nazis, with Hitler as de facto dictator, had usurped absolute power in Germany.
Braunfels’ Te Deum, written just as these events were starting to unfold, may have been conceived, at least in part, as a communal prayer on behalf of a nation trying to recover from the horrors of war and find its place again in the world order, a sentiment mirrored in the Te Deum’s closing lines: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us! Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us as we have trusted in Thee. In Thee, O Lord, have I trusted: let me not be confounded forever.”
The Te Deum, the great hymn of praise and thanksgiving, is among the most ancient extant items of Christian musical worship. Long attributed to St. Ambrose, it has been shown to be the work of one Nicetus, a 6th-century bishop in Remisiana (now Nish, Serbia), though certain of its lines can be traced back as far as the 3rd century A.D. It is one of the few remaining examples of a type of verse written to imitate the Psalms, a genre called psalmus idioticus. (The intriguing term may be rooted in a Medieval use of the word, when it could indicate a layperson, i.e., one without a priest’s training and knowledge. A psalmus idioticus could therefore be a religious verse created outside the biblical canon.) The words of the Te Deum, a component of both the Roman Catholic and Anglican services, received special settings throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including one by Palestrina, and since the 17th century have been the basis of many grand, festive compositions, among which are examples by Purcell (1694), Handel (two, 1713 and 1743), Bruckner (1884), Dvořák (1892), Verdi (1898), Kodály (1936), Vaughan Williams (1937), Britten (1945) and Walton (1953).
Braunfels’ Te Deum was conceived and realized for the concert hall rather than for liturgical use, and when it was premiered in Cologne on February 28, 1922 one reviewer claimed that it earned “the greatest success ever enjoyed by a world premiere in the city.” The Te Deum resonated deeply with German audiences and it was performed well over a hundred times before the Nazis banned Braunfels’ music in 1933, but then not heard again until conductor Günther Wand revived and recorded it in Cologne in 1952 as a tribute to the composer’s 70th birthday. The Te Deum has since remained a rarity, though Manfred Honeck and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded it for Orfeo in 2004.
—Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, Choral
While materials for the Ninth Symphony date back as far as 1815, Beethoven did not start to work in earnest on the piece until 1822. It was completed in February of 1824. Michael Umlauf conducted the first performance in Vienna on May 7, 1824.
Beethoven’s belief in the humanity of art became particularly pronounced in his late music. His final years were a time of social isolation. No longer able to function as a performer, increasingly separated from his fellow men because of his deafness, no longer the center of Vienna’s musical life, Beethoven compensated by making music that was vitally concerned with communication. What we sometimes hear about his late string quartets and piano sonatas—that they are abstract and hermetic—is nonsense, a half-truth idea born nearly two centuries ago when this unfamiliar music was indeed perplexing. But the impulse motivating the late Beethoven is a reaching out to humanity—hence, for example, the simple, almost folk-like tunes that pervade the last works. Musicologist Joseph Kerman writes of Beethoven’s “determination to touch common mankind as nakedly as possible. Never in the past had Beethoven reached so urgently for immediacy. There is something very moving about the spectacle of this composer, having reached heights of subtlety in the pure manipulation of tonal materials, battering at the communications barrier with every weapon of his knowledge. The great exemplar of this drive is the Ninth Symphony.”
The need to communicate led him to the directness of words. The Ninth Symphony, which starts from a veiled murmuring of strings, finishes as an operatic finale. From the vague to the concrete, from mystery to joy, from the abstract to the human, the Ninth cannot remain content with instrumental sound. Thus Beethoven introduced Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” a text in which the poet (and hence the composer) predicts the brotherhood of all men. Although the text is naïve and sentimental (Schiller’s poem was, at least in part, a drinking song), the juxtaposition of this praise of joy with the tragedy, demonic satire and sublimity of the first three movements is deeply meaningful. Beethoven seems to be not simply embracing the millions, but saying that by believing in the joy of brotherhood mankind can rise above the tensions of life and of living.
The sentiments of Schiller’s lines may seem quaint to a world that has known Hitler and Stalin, that has seen Auschwitz, Bosnia and Rwanda, but Beethoven’s interpretation of those words remains a beacon of hope. This is because Beethoven uses Schiller’s words as a solution to the universal problems of mankind hinted at in the first three movements. He does more than join Schiller in praising joy. Beethoven implies that in the belief in brotherhood and joy lies man’s salvation. Beethoven has his chorus sing not of what is, but of what might be, not of mankind’s condition, but of its potential. He utters this message of hope after giving full voice to other sides of human emotions, in the darkly tragic first movement, the obsessive scherzo and the tranquil adagio.
A dozen years separate the completion of Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth symphonies. During that interval he wrote primarily chamber music, solo piano music, songs and the Missa Solemnis. He established his intimate late style, which was in many ways antithetical to large orchestral forces (and to concertos and operas). The Ninth Symphony, which brought together certain ideas he had been toying with his entire mature life, looks back to the heroic middle period through the filter of the personal late style. The first three movements are, in their own way, as extroverted as the Fifth Symphony, while the choral finale approaches the forthrightness of the concertos and the opera Fidelio.
Beethoven had expressed as early as 1793 his intention to compose a setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” In 1798 he made a preliminary setting of the Schiller text, as a song. In 1808 he wrote the Choral Fantasia, which turned out to be a study piece for the Ninth Symphony finale. In the Fantasia he experimented with a form in which the chorus enters after an extended orchestral section. The main choral theme, which he took from a song he had composed in 1795, is quite similar to the symphony’s Joy melody. In 1812 he jotted down what was to become the scherzo theme of the Ninth.
Beethoven continued to sketch, but he set to work in earnest only in 1822. He was still planning a totally instrumental finale as late as the summer of 1823. The theme for that rejected movement eventually became the main melody of the last movement of the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. Once he decided definitely on the choral finale, the composer felt the most difficult challenge was to move from the instrumental portions of the symphony to the choral ending. He worked out the variations on the Joy theme well before he composed the finale’s instrumental introduction. According to his friend Anton Schindler:
When he reached the development of the fourth movement, there began a struggle such as is seldom seen. The object was to find a proper manner of introducing Schiller’s Ode. Entering the room one day, he exclaimed, “I have it! I have it!” He showed me the sketchbook bearing the words, “Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller,” after which a solo voice began directly the hymn to joy.
Owing to his deafness, Beethoven was unable to conduct the first performance. He did supervise rehearsals, however, and angrily refused requests from singers that he alter the music to make it easier. Knowing he could not hear, they simply omitted the high notes. The conductor instructed the musicians to pay no attention to the composer, should he begin to beat time.
Beethoven could not hear the performance, but he followed it in a copy of the score, imagining the sounds everyone else was hearing. At the end of the performance, he was still engrossed in his score, unable to hear the applause. One of the soloists touched his sleeve and turned him so he could see the clapping hands and waving handkerchiefs. Only then did he bow to the audience. Whether or not many in the audience could comprehend this utterly original music, no doubt played quite poorly, few could have failed to be moved by the sight of the greatest genius of music acknowledging applause, which he could not hear, for his music, which he also could not hear.
The opening of the Ninth Symphony is celebrated in the symphonic literature. Although it may seem commonplace today, the manner in which the music grows from nothingness was unprecedented in 1824. The reason this kind of opening is familiar to us is that it was often imitated by later 19th-century symphonists. Bruckner’s final symphony, sharing key and number with Beethoven’s Op. 125, is an obvious example. Another is Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. In an ideal performance of the Beethoven Ninth, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact instant when the sound starts. There is no sharp delineation between silence and sound, as the symphony starts as if it has been going on and the volume just happened to increase. As musicologist Leo Treitler explains:
The silence is not broken; it is gradually replaced by sound. The listener is not drawn into the piece; he is surrounded by it as the orchestra fills and expands its space.… Probably the sense of the cosmic that has become commonplace about the Ninth Symphony is a response to this condition of the opening.
Several aspects of this opening—the stillness, the stark and unmoving harmony, and the absence of any melody—create an atmosphere of expectancy. As the music unfolds, as it gradually takes on a more definitive character, it lives up to these expectations. Tentatively, the music acquires a personality. First the skeleton of a melody appears in the violins, gradually expanded, until the harmony at last changes (but in an understated manner). Finally the full orchestra combines for a unison statement of a powerful falling figure that plunges the music back to its point of origin.
Since the first movement is cast in sonata form, we might wonder how such a tentative opening might return—as traditional sonata form dictates—as a triumphant resolution at the beginning of the recapitulation. Beethoven transforms the hushed opening into an apocalyptic catastrophe. We are shocked by the full orchestra playing loudly the same music that had constituted the hushed opening. We are moved by this side-step into D major, where D minor had been expected. Treitler calls this movement the finest “display anywhere of the horrifying brightness that the major mode can have. It is, all in all, the shock of being now pulled into the opening with great force, instead of having it wash over us.”
At the end of the movement, the powerful descending theme is stated one final time. Now it includes two rapid ascending scales, which prevent the descending motion from closing off the music completely. These two upward rushes linger in the memory, yet to be resolved. And thus we move on to the second movement of this extraordinary symphony.
The scherzo is cast in sonata form, with a fugal exposition. This is a most unusual fugue, however, since each theme and countertheme has virtually the same rhythm. The result, as these similar melodies pile on top of one another, is a relentless perpetuum mobile. Clever rhythmic irregularities, sometimes involving timpani punctuations of the opening motive, add grim humor. The trio section is faster and lighter.
The slow movement is a series of variations on two alternating themes, at two different tempos. The tender lyricism of this movement is a marked contrast to darker emotions of the opening movements and to the joyful finale.
The form of the finale is unusual. Like the second movement, it is an experiment in combining different traditional forms into a single movement—sonata, variations, cantata, concerto, fugue and opera. It is a complete four-movement symphony in miniature, onto which is grafted the outlines of sonata form. The sonata’s exposition is a set of variations, its development is a fugue, and its coda is an operatic finale. The form, as pianist and analyst Charles Rosen points out, is actually modeled after the classical concerto, with its double exposition, rather than the typical symphony.
Before this fascinating amalgamation of forms can begin, memories of the other movements must be laid to rest. The finale starts with a massively dissonant fanfare, which alternates with a recitative-like line in the lower strings. This recitative is a surprise. What is such an operatic gesture doing in the midst of a symphony? As Treitler explains, “It signals a breakdown in the purely musical means of expression.” It implies that only through words will the symphony reach its full meaning. Brief references to each of the other movements alternate with the recitative—the first three references are reminiscences and the fourth is an anticipation of the upcoming finale.
Finally the exposition begins with the famous Joy theme. The vocal quality and balanced construction of this melody make it unlike any of the symphony’s earlier materials. Three variations on this theme follow, and then a transition brings us back to the opening fanfare. The form resembles that of a classical concerto in that the main material is presented first by the orchestra and then by the “soloist” with orchestra. In this case the “soloist” comprises the four vocalists plus chorus. Before they can enter with the main theme, however, the previous instrumental symphony must be completely dispelled. After the fanfare, the recitative returns, now actually sung. The words are, “O friends no more these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!” With this exhortation to song, the chorus enters with three additional variations on the Joy theme.
When the music modulates to B-flat major for the second theme, the character changes to that of a Turkish march, complete with drum and triangle. This section functions like a scherzo movement within the finale’s pseudo four-movement structure. The full chorus and orchestra follow with an additional variation on the Joy theme, to the original words, “Joy, bright spark of divinity, daughter of Elysium.” After a break the fugue begins: “You millions, I embrace you!” This section functions like a slow movement and also like the finale’s development section. The Joy and fugue themes are combined in a grand recapitulatory move back to D major—the finale’s finale. But this extraordinarily conceived movement is not ready to end. The implications of having begun with a recitative must be fulfilled. As the text sings of joy one final time, the music begins to sound very much like an opera finale. And so it ends, about as far as imaginable from the mysterious and abstract opening of the first movement—in a thoroughly operatic, extroverted, joyful song of praise.
—Jonathan D. Kramer